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EDUCATION > Universities

Foreign-born children in Japan struggle to enter universities

  • January 8, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 12:00 p.m.
  • English Press

EUGENE LANG, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Japan’s acute labor shortage has forced the government to increase the number of foreign workers in the country, prompting improvements in public services that target newcomers and help attract more overseas staff.


Still, hurdles remain for people who choose to make Japan their home, especially when it comes to ensuring that their children receive a full education.


University entrance exams start next week, a daunting, stress-filled time for most college hopefuls. But for foreign-born children in the country, the hurdles are magnified as they have to take the exams in Japanese, which puts them at a disadvantage compared with Japanese nationals.


There are different admissions frameworks for overseas students who want to study in Japan that typically do not require high proficiency in Japanese. These frameworks, however, are unavailable to foreign students already residing in the country, who may be functional in the language but often lack the fluency needed to do well on the tests.


A 2021 Nikkei survey found that only a few of about 80 national universities have an admissions framework in place for the children of foreign nationals. Although the 75 schools that responded do have systems for selecting international students, most require students to hold a high school diploma or university entrance qualification from their home country.


A total of 61 schools — about 80% — do not allow foreign-born students who are graduating from Japanese high schools to take entrance exams using the same framework as for international students.


The remaining 14 schools said that foreign students residing in the country can use the framework under certain conditions, such as if the student had only studied in Japan for three years or less. However, “most students come to Japan before they are 15 and attend Japanese schools from middle school on,” said a high school faculty member in Osaka Prefecture. “The conditions are so strict that it is rarely an option to be classified as an international student.”


Even for the more than 600 private universities in Japan, only a few have entrance provisions for foreign-born students. “Answering questions on the university entrance exam requires advanced Japanese skills on top of daily conversation ability,” said Kazuki Murakami, a professor of international sociology at Toyo University.


An international survey on immigration revealed that the education environment in Japan is less developed than in other countries. The Migrant Integration Policy Index is a survey in which researchers from more than 50 countries — including the U.S., Europe, Asia and Oceania — compare multicultural coexistence policies in eight areas. In the 2020 survey, they scored Japan’s education at 33 points, lower than the average of around 40.


There are many countries that give preferential treatment to foreign-born children. Australia, for example, gives points to students who are immigrants or refugees, while Finland has a Finnish-language instruction program for young refugees.


Japan has been attracting more talent from overseas, a growing number of which come with their families or start them here. In many cases, their children lack the necessary Japanese-language skills to enter university because they often attend foreign schools. According to the Education Ministry, about 51,000 young students “needed Japanese-language instruction” in fiscal 2018. That is 1.5 times more than 10 years earlier, and the figure is expected to grow.


“The government’s policies are biased toward acquiring talented people from overseas, but there is little awareness of the need to help foreign-born children in Japan,” said Yasuko Takezawa, a professor at Kyoto University and a specialist on multicultural societies. “The perspectives of young people who have grown up in multicultural environments will bring new ideas to universities and companies.”


Japan’s increasingly globalized society requires an environment in which people with diverse backgrounds can thrive. A system that does not allow young people to grow will not attract skilled individuals.


Many experts say Japan urgently needs to create an education system that enables everyone to develop their talents.

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